Sustainable Footprints on Kilimanjaro

By Stuart Roberts, UNEP

8 March 2011

Kilimandjaro InitiativeUNEP staff once again joined the Kilimanjaro Initiative (KI) this year, in the annual ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The initiative aims to raise awareness and help address the problems of youth in the urban areas of East Africa, highlighting their role in sustainable development. The theme for this year's climb was the environmental and social sustainability as showcased by the 'Green Economy' concept to enhance wellbeing, reduce inequities and rebuild economies on a sustainable basis.

Two UNEP staff members joined 33 other climbers, including 10 youth from Kenya and Tanzania, and 11 cyclists from Global Bike who had earlier been flagged off by Edward Norton, UN Goodwill Ambassador from the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi to the gates of Kilimanjaro National Park. KI founder Tim Challen welcomed the group to the Marangu Hotel, near Moshi in Tanzania, where all climbers came together for the first time over dinner. With introductions out of the way, climbers contemplated the task ahead, hearing experiences from those who had made the ascent on earlier climbs.

As a tangible contribution towards the climb's environmental sustainability theme this year, the group visited a local school to plant trees and discussed caring for the environment. This brought the group closer in preparation for the climb the following day. So on 28 February, the climbers commenced the trek towards Mt Kilimanjaro, after a small ceremony at the gates of the park. Over the following three days, the group gradually climbed altitude and camped at a series of sites – arriving typically at the end of a long day's walk, taking dinner prepared by a crew of talented cooks, and bedding down in small huts, exhausted, and up early the following morning for another long day's trek.

By the evening of the third day the group had reached Kibo camp, at the foot of the monolith that would be scaled at midnight. At 4200 meters, the camp was cold and bleak, and by this stage altitude was having its effects on all climbers. Breathing was becoming difficult, the cold cut through thermal layers, and many climbers struggled with the effects of nausea and dehydration.

At midnight, climbers gathered in the bitter cold outside the dormitory huts, and began the final ascent together in pitch darkness, with headlamps to light their path and experienced guides to show the way. The group spread out quickly. The youth, young and fit, surged ahead, along with the cyclists, while others took a measured pace, conscious of the long and exhausting night ahead. UNEP climbers, Joanna Benn and Stuart Roberts were joined by Lisa Yazdabadi of Climate Action, setting a steady pace towards the summit.

As dawn broke six and a half hours later, some climbers had already breached the glacial summit that now loomed in the golden sun's first rays. The UNEP group was still three hours shy of the summit, and paused to admire the luminous dawn bathing the stunning vista 5200 metres below. The group had earlier learned from experienced guide Emmanuel Eliah that the glacial cap of Mt Kilimanjaro had been steadily receding since the 1960s, when he first climbed 'Kibo' as a teenager. Sepia photographs back at the Marangu Hotel confirmed the relentless glacial retreat, likely due to the effects of climate change and rising global temperatures.

The UNEP group pressed on, in the stunning dawn light, and mounted the summit of Gilman's Point, at 5681 metres, at 9:30 am, exhausted but satisfied. A warming cup of tea and biscuits renewed their energy for the slippery and sliding descent that would be made shortly.

Of the 35 climbers, 29 made one of Kilimanjaro's two summits – Gilman's Point, or Uhuru, 200 metres further on – while six had to turn back due to exhaustion or illness. All climbers should take pride in achieving their own 'Uhuru' – testing their personal boundaries, working as a team, caring for their fellow climbers, and appreciating Africa's highest peak and one of the world's greatest natural treasures.